The Secular Challenge
By Fr. Stephen Freeman, June 12, 2015
Fr. Alexander Schmemann held that secularism was the single greatest challenge of the modern era. I took up this understanding and made it the heart of my book, Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe. It is at the heart of every serious challenge the Church faces in our time. The news is not so good.
A recent article by Damian Thompson in the British publication, The Spectator, estimates that at the present rate of decline, British Christianity will cease to exist by 2067. The numbers are simply staggering. The most precipitous decline is within the Church of England (Anglican). The culprit, well-noted in the article, is secularization.
Secularism, in the sense that I use it, is a view of the world in which God is optional. God, if He is seen to exist at all, is in no way an inherent part of life. The world is a neutral zone, not good, not bad, not religious in any way. Religion, God, etc., is nothing more than a belief system that some may choose to bring into their lives. As I have written, many Christians quietly, even unconsciously, hold to this view. Awash in the cultural waters, they feel the world to be devoid of God. The world has been “disenchanted.”
This view of the world has been centuries in the making and it permeates Western societies. Many of the Christians who live here have long ago adapted Christian theology to secular culture, and believe in a form of “secularized” Christianity. I would even venture to say that the vast majority of Orthodox living in the West have a fairly secularized view of their faith. One reason this is so common is because, within our culture, it does not present itself as a rejection of the faith.
Recent conversation on the blog about the nature of language is a very good example. Secularized culture is also Nominalist culture. It presumes as a matter of course that words only have meaning within the minds of their listeners. And by the same token, things only have a particular meaning within the mind of a person. In that way objects are never intrinsically holy, but are rather considered to be holy. They are sacred because someone thinks they are sacred. Religious beliefs may be asserted as personal rights and freedoms, but not because they are inherently true and holy.
The world view of Nominalism/Secularism is atheism waiting to happen. Christianity that has this as a worldview need only drop the “extra baggage” of religion to feel like everyone else. No other change is required.
But what of those who hear about the earlier form of Christianity and wish to practice it. How do they go about acquiring a worldview that is foreign to the world they live in?
I have thought and wrestled with this transformation for over two decades. It is a gift of grace, but we may cooperate in the work.
One beginning step is to recognize the flaws within the secular worldview. Christian teaching holds that God not only created all things, but also holds them in existence moment by moment. It is relatively easy to question the claims to self-existence of the secular worldview. I sometimes engage in “thought experiments” in order to re-train my mental habits.
I generally start with the so-called Big Bang itself, as well as the whole unlikely scenario of the formation of the universe and its Laws. Many Christians have strong and very reasonable beliefs in the necessity of a created universe. The universe is not an accident. It is but a small step from that to the recognition that every atom and particle exists at every moment only by the will and Divine Energy of God.
A second thought experiment might seem odd. There is a heresy called “Pantheism” that holds that all created things are, in fact, a part of God. I imagine such a worldview, but step back from it, to the Orthodox position of everything having a created logos, a spiritual meaning that gives it order, direction and purpose. Indeed, the logoi are identified with the Divine Energies. This is not Pantheism itself, but Pantheism would be closer to it than the emptiness of secular Nominalism.
We go through our days treating objects as solid, even though we know scientifically that atoms are mostly nothing. We use language that says, “The sun rose in the East,” even though we know that it is the earth that turns and makes the sun appear to rise. Learning to engage creation as the sustained work of God, representations and participants in the Divine logoi, is not unlike this. The difference is found in paying attention to the truth of things, remembering and considering their constant and continuing relationship with God.
Nominalism and secularism are perhaps the most convenient worldviews ever imagined. If the things around us are self-existent and have no inherent relationship with me, then they may be ignored. Other than those times in which I want to use something or in which it gets in my way, I can live as though the world has nothing to do with me. In Nominalism and Secularism, the idea is the thing. All that matters is what I think about something, and how I relate to your thinking about something. The patent absurdity of such a life hardly requires comment. We are materialists who live as idealists (when it suits us).
Repentance (metanoia) means a change of mind – and this is a change of the deep mind (nous). That it means a change of worldview should not surprise us. How could it not?
And do not be conformed (suschematizo) to this world (ainos), but be transformed (metamorpho) by the renewing of your mind (nous), that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Rom 12:2)
I think the words of St. Paul’s admonition are very much to the point. Being “suschematized” to this “ainos” (the schematic of this age) could easily be rendered “see the world according to the spirit of the age.” Having our minds renewed includes a rejection of the age’s worldview.
The world is sacrament and icon, a manifestation of the Divine Energies. Our words and actions are themselves a participation or rejection of those same Divine Energies. That is to say, how we see and approach the world and everything in it is part of our salvation.
In the life of the Church, through sacraments and icons, we are being taught how to see and think, how to rightly handle the things of this world. The challenge of Secularism is not political. It is on the most fundamental level of our existence. Be transformed.
~Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/06/12/the-secular-challenge/